How do I Become a Published Author?

I am frequently approached by people who are working on a book, who have an idea for a book, or who have a completed manuscript for a book. Their questions vary, but most boil down to “How do I do it? How do I get my book published?”

In answer to that question, I offer you one person’s perspective. If you want to know who that person is, check out my home page. If you want to start a journey that will probably be more work, more frustrating, but more personally rewarding than you ever imagined, keep reading.

What to do First

Step one is to get an overview of the publishing process. Write your book with an eye to publishing it. Many people have finished a book only to find that nobody is publishing books like that right now. If you’re writing just for the fun of it, that’s not a problem. But if you are writing for publication, you need to write with the publication process in mind.

Educate yourself about the business of writing while you’re writing. (Notice: I said “while you’re writing” not “instead of writing”.) The images on the right link to a few books that have been helpful to me.

Write the Book

It may seem obvious, but before you can get your first book published, you have to write the book. If you are writing fiction, you can assume that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to find an agent or publisher without a finished manuscript in hand. Publishers aren’t interested in your “great idea”. They’re interested in great manuscripts. If you’re writing a novel, finish first.

If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you can sometimes start looking for a publisher before the book is finished. If the information is timely or dated, you may need to start the process of looking for a publisher while you are still finishing the book. But one of the things the publisher will want is evidence that you can finish a book. If this is your first book, the best evidence you can give them is a complete manuscript.

Write the book. Then rewrite it. Then rerewrite it and polish it. If this book is your first one, you will be not only producing a polished manuscript but also growing your writing skills. Finish the book, sure, but don’t rush the rewriting and editing process.

A good critique group can be helpful at this stage. They can give you fresh eyes on a section you’ve worked to death. They can help you spot problems you never noticed. And they can give you one more incentive to keep writing. Be sure, though, that your group is made up of working writers. They don’t have to be published writers, but they should be actively writing themselves. People who don’t write haven’t “been there.” They’re used to looking at books from a reader’s perspective–an important perspective to be sure, but very different from that of the writer. People who write but have been “blocked” for a while have all kinds of little frustrations that tend to come out in critique sessions. Find yourself a group of people who are writing.

Where do you find a critique group? Local community colleges can be very helpful. Some will have workshops you can take as a credit class. Others will sponsor workshops as noncredit community “extension” classes. Check with your local independent bookstore: they sometimes know who in town is writing. Or join an online group. CompuServe has a strong writers’ community.

When your book is the best book you can write, it’s time to try to place it.

Agent or Publisher?

Who should you approach first? An agent or a publisher? Part of the answer to that question depends on the nature of the book. If your book has a built in niche market– if it’s a local interest book or a book aimed at a group of people with a particular hobby or interest– you can often go straight to finding a publisher. If your book is a novel, if it’s going to involve extensive contract negotiation, or if you would like to see it published by a major publisher, you will probably need an agent.

I’m not going to kid you– finding an agent or a publisher for your book is difficult, very difficult. You have a lot of competition. What’s going to distinguish you from that competition can be sheer brilliance (though not all brilliant writers are discovered and published), or it can be a willingness to work, educate yourself, make connections, and master the both the art and business of writing. If you learn to write a solid proposal, to analyze the market, to approach the right agents and publishers at the right time, you are already ahead of the vast majority of weekend novelists.

Queries and Proposals

As the author of a work in progress, you lived inside your book. You thought it, structured it, played with it. You created its every detail. As the author of a completed book, you stand with the finished manuscript in hand, looking out at the market and the publishing world. Your task is now to place the book into that outside world. Doing so is a major shift in perspective and requires very different skills.

Before you go looking for an agent or publisher, write a query and a proposal. They are your main selling tools, the way you approach the publishing world. A query is a one page letter. A proposal is more detailed, several pages.

The proposal is the way you educate yourself about your market and the selling points of your book. Even if the agents you’re approaching only ask for the query, write a proposal anyway. If you write the proposal first, your query will be easier to write and more persuasive. Why? Because a query is simply the most persuasive points of your proposal packed into one high-energy letter.

How do you write a proposal? What is it composed of? Jeff Herman’s Write the Perfect Book Proposal. You can also go online to look at some of the model proposals that agents and publishers have posted.

I have a summary I use that is a synthesis of several proposals I’ve studied. It’s by no means the final word on the subject, but I offer it to you as one more resource to help you teach yourself how to write a proposal that reflects your style and the strengths of your book.

Once you have your proposal written, go through it and ask yourself, “What is most likely to catch the eye of a publisher?” Remember, they want a high-quality book that will sell well. What in your proposal proves that your book is just such a book? Put that in your query. In addition to your main selling points, you will also include some standard information in your query. The current Writer’s Market typically has at least one article per issue on queries. The 2000 edition has a very informative article on what works and what doesn’t in query letters.

Finally, I’ve found that that it helps to spend time picking the brains of people who sell for a living. My proposals owe much to Robert Bly’s Copywriter’s Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Copy that Sells, despite the fact that Bly never mentions book proposals specifically. What he does talk about is how to write compelling marketing copy, and that, after all, is what a book proposal is.

A proposal cannot be written in one evening. It takes time to learn to balance the two different perspectives and styles of writing involved. To write a good proposal you need to balance persuasive marketing of your book with a reflection of your writing style as an author. In other words, the marketing-copywriter side of you needs to show off the author side of you to the best advantage. Spend time on your proposal. Run it past your critique group or some more experienced friends. Edit it ruthlessly. When you send it out, it should contain 100% clean copy– no mechanical errors whatsoever.

Your proposal and query are your foot in the door of the publishing world. Make them your best writing ever.

Which Agent?

Agents have specialties. Most of the good ones handle a specific range of projects– just books in a particular genre, just books for a particular readership, just books by celebrities, just books for large east-coast publishers, or just screenplays. If you send your query to an agent who doesn’t handle your kind of book, you waste your time and theirs.

Before you start sending things out, do some research to find out who’s handling what. A good way to do that is to find other similar books (in topic, genre, style, or whatever). Note the publisher. See if the authors mention their agents in the acknowledgments. Or see if Publishers Weekly, either online or in print, mentions who agented or edited the books. I have heard of some people who have actually called a book’s publisher to ask who agented the book. (I’ve never tried that tack myself, but I’ve heard of it working.)

Next, find out who’s taking new submissions and who isn’t. Get the current edition of the Guide to Literary Agents. Search the Web to see if the agencies you’re considering have Web sites. Some established agencies don’t take new clients. Others won’t take a query from you unless you have a letter of introduction from one of their current clients. You need to know which are which before you start approaching prospects.

From the information you glean, put together a list of agents to send queries to. The Guide to Literary Agents has agent addresses and a description of how these agents want to be contacted. The Writer’s Guide to Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents, 2000-2001 has more details about each agent they list, but their list isn’t as comprehensive.

If you are sending out queries, go ahead and send them simultaneously to several agents. If you are sending out manuscripts (which you probably won’t be doing on your initial contact, unless the agent specifically requests it), send them out on an exclusive basis (i.e. to one agent at a time). If you are sending out proposals, it’s a judgment call as to whether you send them exclusively or not. My policy was to send proposals exclusively only if they had been requested. If I was sending unsolicited proposals, I’d send several simultaneously. Generally, I didn’t send more than ten queries at a time. That way if I got a request for the manuscript from more than one agent, I wouldn’t have to keep anyone waiting for months on end.

Signs of Trouble

A word to the wise: There are a lot of unscrupulous agents out there. Watch your step.

How do you know if they agent you’re approaching is a legitimate agent or a crook (or of one of the many shades of gray in between)? Here’s a few warning signs:

  1. If the agent approaches you first, be suspicious, very suspicious. The only time a legitimate agent might seek out an unpublished writer is if that writer is a renowned expert in a particular field. If you are Michael Jordan, and word gets out that you’re writing a book on pro basketball, the agent knocking on your door might be legit. If you are an unpublished author writing a first novel, the agent sending you color brochures in the mail is probably after your money.
  2. If the agent looks at your manuscript and suggests you employ a book doctor, especially one they recommend, assume it’s a scam unless you get overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Some book doctors make their money not by getting your book ready for publication but by taking advantage of the dreams or desperation of aspiring writers. Some agents make part of their income not by placing books with publishers but by referring aspiring writers to book doctors who have offered them a commission (kickback?) for every writer who uses their services.
  3. If an agent wants to charge you a reading fee upfront, keeping looking. Legitimate agents make their money from commissions. They sell your book; they get a cut. If they get paid for simply reading your manuscript, they don’t need to sell it to get paid. Some legitimate agents do charge for photocopying and/or postage. You will find this to be true especially if the agency is small or new, or you are an unknown quantity in the writing business. Some quick arithmetic will tell you, however, whether these “photocopying costs” are legitimate or not.
  4. If an agent advertises in the backs of magazines, do a lot of checking before doing business with them. It is possible for a legitimate agent to advertise this way, especially if they’re new. But the ratio of scam artists to legitimate agents is very high in these venues.
  5. If an agent refuses to provide you with a list of clients they’ve worked with and books they’ve sold, walk away. Not every agent will talk about the dollar amounts they’ve gotten for their clients. But if their client list itself is “confidential,” they are probably hiding more than just a list of names.
  6. Get a list of books the agent has represented. Look specifically at the publishing companies that published those books. If an agent has sold clients’ manuscripts to subsidy or vanity publishers, you probably have a problem. Again, a publisher is supposed to pay you, not vice versa.

How can you tell if a particular agent is legit? One of the best signs is membership in the AAR. True, a number of good agents aren’t members. But those who are members are required to adhere to a code of conduct. If your agent is a member of the AAR, you can breathe fairly comfortably. If you want more information beyond simply memberships, contact some of their clients, ask if they are satisfied. Some online sites offer assessments of agents’ credentials. One of the ones I’ve used is Agent Query.

Which Publisher?

The nice thing about having an agent is that they know which publishers to approach. If you aren’t using an agent, however, you will need to do some research yourself.

You should already know who’s publishing books like yours. You researched that information when you were writing your proposal. Get a hold of these companies’ catalogs (or do a publisher search on, and see if you think your book would fit into their line. Then go to the Writer’s Market or Literary Marketplace for more information, including contact information.

Again beware of the publishers who just want your money. In mainstream publishing, the publisher pays you not vice versa. If you’re looking for a career as an author, don’t make any deals with subsidy or vanity publishers. (Self-publishing is another story entirely, one that I leave to authors who know more than I do about it. If, by the way, you are considering anything other than mainstream publishing, you’ll need to research the difference between vanity publishing and self-publishing.) One very basic, very important safety tip: If the publisher advertises in the back of a magazine that it’s looking for new writers, leave that publisher for the poor writers who don’t know any better.

Keeping Track

If your book is accepted the first time you send it out you are either extremely lucky, extremely talented, or both. Most of us have to send our projects out to numerous agents and publishers before being noticed. That’s why you need to keep a log.

Your log doesn’t have to be elaborate, but it should contain certain crucial information: the name of the person you sent to, address, exactly what you sent, when you sent it, how they responded. You can’t keep it all in your head. Start a log right from the beginning.

Just as you did with agents, learn as much about a publishing company and its editors as you can. Scan book acknowledgment pages, Publisher’s Weekly articles, online articles, any source you can find to see who is editing books like yours. If you can land your query or proposal on the right desk right from the beginning, you dramatically increase its chances of being noticed.

Send proposals and queries out in much the same way you would to agents– queries and unsolicited en masse, requested proposals exclusively, manuscripts only when requested and then exclusively.